Living with co-occurring disorders





First of all, I’d like to iterate that the following comes from my own, personal experience. I am not a trained mental health professional, though I am trained in addiction counseling. I am also a person in recovery from both addiction and mental illness. These conditions affect every area of my life: the way I think, the way I feel, and the way I perceive myself and the world. Often times, it’s difficult to distinguish one from another, which is why it’s so important to treat both, simultaneously.

Growing up with mental illness and substance use disorder

When I was young, I watched my parents battle with active addiction. Looking back, I’m certain they also suffered from mental illness. With drug and/or alcohol abuse as a mask, it’s hard to notice the symptoms of mental illness. Symptoms of mental illness, and the unstable emotions associated with it, are often confused with withdrawal symptoms or the effects of a “high.” At least it was like that for me.

When I was high, everything was great; I didn’t feel the anxiety or depression, or the effects of my PTSD. As long as I stayed high, I was okay – nothing bothered me, but I was living in a land of make-believe. As the effects of the drugs wore off and the negative thoughts and feelings came back, I thought I was experiencing withdrawals. This was partially true, but I was also feeling the underlying symptoms of mental illness. There was no way to know the difference. In fact, I hadn’t even considered that mental illness was present because I was so unfamiliar with it. I was never educated on the effects of mental illness; there was enormous stigma around it when I was growing up. There was no way to know my baseline or what was real, but, fortunately, today there is more awareness of mental illness and how it affects a huge portion of our population.

Even so, it can be difficult to diagnose and treat mental illness while one is abusing drugs, because there are so many variables that come along with the unpredictability of addiction. It’s hard to know if one is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, the effects of a drug, or the symptoms of mental illness. Skilled doctors have the training and experience necessary to differentiate between these conditions and know how to treat them accordingly. Getting professional help is vital to treating co-occurring disorders. Many lay-people, who mean well, may give advice and make suggestions that can do more harm than good. Find a good therapist and psychiatrist to help you on your path.

Getting treatment for co-occurring disorders

I have found that along with professional help, recovery support groups play an integral role in recovery from co-occurring conditions. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Smart Recovery, Refuge Recovery, Adult Children of Alcoholics, depression and bi-polar support groups, etc., help substantially with finding a community of people with experience, compassion, and willingness to help you on your journey.

I’ve learned that addiction and mental illness have roots. My roots were a genetic disposition to mental illness and drug addiction, childhood abuse and neglect, and abandonment. With the help of medication, therapy, and support groups, I’ve been able to recover and build a life for myself. I am no longer financially dependent on others, I’ve found a career, and have great relationships in my life. I feel good about myself. It’s often said in recovery meetings, “If I can do it, so can you.” If you’re struggling with mental health and addiction issues, find help. Utilize the many resources available to you, and begin your journey to mental health and wellness. You don’t need to do this alone.

By: Dave Pagano